Katie Couric on How Children Mourn

Kashayla talks about the loss of her father, on "Sunday Morning," April 11, 2010. grief, grieving death, mourn, mourning, parent, child
A death in the family becomes all the more difficult when there are children in the family. It's a subject our CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric knows very well. When she lost her husband Jay Monahan to cancer in 1998, she had two very young daughters to counsel. That's one reason she's involved with a special prime time edition of "Sesame Street" on PBS this week, a helping hand to kids (and parents) grappling with death:

"It was on his birthday, like a couple of years ago, and it was right after he had the cake," said Kevin, showing a picture of his dad.

Kashayla explained the source of her photo: "My mom took the picture and I was playing on the bed with him."

As adults, we try to create a home and family where our children will never feel pain. But sometimes that's not possible

"Our mom died of a brain aneurysm, I think it's called," said Maddy.

"My father died when I was 10 years old," said Joy.

"My dad died two years ago," said Alicia.

"He died of cancer, I think," said Jon David.

By the time they are 15, one in 20 children will lose one or both parents.

And yet, we still have so much to learn about how children process death.

Jon David: "We all gathered around and took a picture."

Death is often a taboo topic, and that makes it even tougher for the estimated two million children who have lost a parent.

Alicia said, "I didn't know anyone I could talk to."

Mary Owen, the clinical director at the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing in Washington, said children's lives are ground in the parent. "It's where they get their sense of security.

We talked to ten children - between the ages of 7 to 12 - who, like Joy, have all recently lost a parent. "He would just give me a hug every night. I miss that the most," Joy said.

"The parent really is the one that sets the tone for understanding how life works," said Owen. "And so, when you lose that, a child loses a part of that sense of security and safety that maybe an adult doesn't experience the same way."

And at a time when parents are dying in combat and others are starting families later in life, a generation of children is confronting death much earlier. By understanding what kids go through, parents, school officials and other caring adults - and children - may be better equipped to help.

Psychologist Phyllis Silverman co-authored Harvard's landmark child bereavement study and is one of the field's pioneering researchers.

Children do grieve, Silverman said. "When I started out, it was very common to say that 'They're too young, they don't grieve. They don't understand.' Well, it's true they may not understand it in our terms. But we have to realize that this still nonetheless leaves a mark on the child. Children know they've lost something. Mamma goes away and you cry and she says, 'I'll be back later' and she is. And now, she doesn't come back. Well, where did she go?"

"He's, like, in heaven or some place and, like, he's just not here with us," said Jon David.

Often explaining "where a parent went" is particularly difficult, in part because children, especially those younger than seven, can't comprehend the finality of death.

"They could come back in ghost form," said Jon David. "'Cause, like, you could bury their body and lightening could hit, like, their tombstone, and then they would be a ghost and come back."

"They can see that flowers die, they might even know a dog dies," said Silverman. "They may not really understand that it's not reversible. It takes a long time to understand the permanency and universality of death."

The "D" Word

"When my mom called me, she said, 'Your dad passed away,'" recalled Taysia. " I said, 'What do you mean?' She said, like, 'He passed away.' I said, 'Huh?' She said, 'He died.'

"And I was just shocked, I was speechless. And I just started crying."

"So often the parents want to protect the children from the pain of the loss, and the tendency is to try to use words that sound nice or kinder, like 'We've lost Daddy,'" said Owen.

"Or, 'He's gone to heaven,'" said Couric.

"And it's really confusing," said Owen. "Children need to hear: Your father is dead. Your mother is dead. They need to hear the truth."

"The 'D' word,' said Couric.

"That's right."

How Could This Happen?

"I just stood there," said Jon David.

"I laid down on the bed and said, 'How could this happen?'" said Kevin.

"They burst into tears," said Owen. "They feel very, very sad. Sometimes they feel angry that all of a sudden life isn't fair. And they're very angry. Sometimes they're shocked. And sometimes they laugh. They have fear grin. They smile, the giggle, they laugh because they're scared."

One Last Time

"I love my dad and I wanted to be there, to see him one last time before he was buried under the ground forever," said Zach.

"I saw her in the coffin, which I called a box at that time," said Tai, "and everybody else was crying but I didn't cry because I really didn't know what was happening to my mom."

It was once believed that children should be shielded from the rituals of loss, like funerals and burials, but Silverman says not so.

"The silence of the grave is absolute," she said. "And going to the cemetery, participating in the funeral helps, is one small step in making it real. It's not only to be part of the ritual, but they have to be acknowledged as mourners.

"That's one of the most important things we can do, is to recognize that your child is mourning and needs to be included."

I Never Cried

"I never like cried at his funeral, and I think the tears that come up now is because I never cried," said Kashayla.

"They say very clearly that 'I don't want to cry in front of my mother 'cause I don't want to upset her,'" Silverman said. "She has enough trouble, she has enough on her mind."

"That's a big burden for children," said Couric.

"It is a big burden, and so unfortunately, if you have young children you have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps as we say and make do. They have to think of their children."

Someone is Watching

"I feel that he, that I'm safe and that I have somebody who's watching over and protecting me," said Taysia.

"When I'm just like contemplating on to do the right thing, sometimes I can hear his voice, like a conscience," said Joy.

"My daughter was just two when my husband died, and when she was three, she said to me, 'Mommy, Daddy flew in the window last night and he knelt down beside me and said, Carrie, I'm so proud of you.'" said Couric. " That's pretty typical, isn't it?"

"Yes, it's typical," said Owen. "They haven't had many years of memories, and so in some ways they create who that deceased person is. How do they hold onto that person, what that person thought and felt?"

"Even though the person is no longer there," Couric said.

"That's right, what you carry through the rest of your life, yeah."

It Doesn't End

"This is the bus schedule that my Mom took to nursing class because she wanted to be a nurse before she died," said Tai. "I really like it because she touched it and I really like it."

"Children grieve for the rest of their lives - they don't get over it," said Silverman.

Silverman says grief is not an illness that a child needs to recover from.

"They don't stop missing the person," she said. "They think about what their life would have been like. And it doesn't end. Your whole life is different. You're never going to be the same as you were before."

"A lot I think it's not fair," said Jon David.

"I wish that she was still alive and that I could get at least get to know her a little bit better," said Tai.

In the end, perhaps the best way to help a child who's grieving is to listen, and even learn.

"We don't move away from him, we just, like, keep going on with our lives and still have part of him with us," said Zach.

"I hope I get to a place where I don't get sad, but I just get happy remembering the good times we had," said Joy.

"When Families Grieve" debuts Wednesday, April 14 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS. Check local listings for stations and times.

For more info:
Wendt Center for Loss and Healing
The Moyer Foundation
Phyllis R. Silverman
The Children's Room
Church of St. Francis Xavier
B'nai Jeshurun